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The rising domestic danger to India’s foreign policy under Modi

Press Information Bureau / GODL-India (https://data.gov.in/sites/default/files/Gazette_Notification_OGDL.pdf)

Whether New Delhi likes it or not, it is becoming increasingly clear that domestic issues are affecting ties with its neighbors and partners and that the costs of this are increasing.

Over the past few months, it has become increasingly clear that India’s domestic issues are increasingly threatening to impact India’s foreign policy. Issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and India’s actions in Kashmir are beginning to affect India’s relations with its neighbors, major Islamic countries such as Iran and Indonesia, and strategic partners such as the United States. Last week’s violence in Delhi, in particular, is drawing negative attention to India’s internal matters and could possibly affect its reputation.

In an exceptional move, and a first for India, the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has said that it was planning to file an application on the CAA in the Indian Supreme Court. The UN Higher Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet subsequently filed an Intervention Application against the CAA. The MEA responded to this by saying that the CAA is an internal issue of India and “no foreign party has any locus standi on issues pertaining to India’s sovereignty.”

Iran is another recent critic, and another surprising one too, and it was vocal in condemning the communal violence in Delhi, especially the targeting of India’s Muslim citizens. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had a tough tweet on the Delhi violence, saying, “Iran condemns the wave of organized violence against Indian Muslims. For centuries, Iran has been a friend of India.  We urge Indian authorities to ensure the well-being of ALL Indians & not let senseless thuggery prevail.  Path forward lies in peaceful dialogue and rule of law.”

New Delhi did not respond kindly to the foreign minister’s comments. Responding to a question on the Iranian foreign minister’s tweet, the MEA spokesperson stated that India had summoned Iranian Ambassador Ali Chegeni and “a strong protest was lodged against the unwarranted remarks made by the Iranian Foreign Minister. It was conveyed that his selective and tendentious characterization of recent events in Delhi are not acceptable. We do not expect such comments from a country like Iran.”  Apparently, it was made clear to the Iranian ambassador that this was an internal issue of India and that Iranian comments were not appreciated.

It is strange that the Iranian foreign minister’s particularly harsh tweet came just a few days after India joined hands with Iran to speed up the Chabahar port development. While Iran is known to champion the rights of Muslim minorities in other countries, it was a bit incongruous considering that Iran has said little about China’s behavior towards its Muslim Uyghur minority, large numbers of whom have been placed in concentration camps simply because of their Islamic faith. Of course, nations are not always consistent in their policies, and Iran fears China far more than it fears India.

While Iran is not a particularly strategic partner for India and can possibly be ignored, others are more difficult to dismiss. Indonesia, an important partner in India’s Act East and Indo-Pacific strategy, has also voiced serious concerns about the violence in Delhi. Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim group, expressed disquiet about the violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims on account of the CAA. Muhammadiyah secretary-general Abdul Mu’thi while denouncing the violence, said that the violence was “clearly against human rights principles.” A day after the violence, hashtag #ShameOnYouIndia was among the top trending topics on Twitter in Indonesia, and as many as 46,000 tweets were related to the Delhi violence, many condemning the violence.

This was mirrored by some of the government reactions as well. There was an unusually strong statement issued by the Indonesian Religious Affairs Ministry condemning the religious violence in Delhi. Within hours of this statement, the Indonesian foreign ministry made a statement saying that “The Government of Indonesia has complete confidence that the Government of India will be able to manage the situation and ensure the harmonious relations among its religious communities. Moreover, both countries share similar characteristics, as pluralistic countries that uphold democratic values and tolerance.” The Indonesian foreign ministry also called in the Indian Ambassador to Jakarta, Pradeep Rawat, seeking details on the Delhi violence.

Of course, this pales in comparison to any damage that may be caused to India’s ties to the United States, its most important strategic partner. Despite the successful Trump visit to India, this bears watching. India’s foreign minister and its diplomats have done a good job explaining its position in the United States after the revoking Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, but India’s approach after the CAA has been quite poor. For instance, Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s cancellation of meetings with U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) because Pramila Jayapal was part of the delegation possibly did not help. In fact, the resolution in the Congress, seeking a return to normalcy in Kashmir, sponsored by Jayapal found 10 additional legislators ready to co-sponsor it right after the cancellation of the meeting.

Last week’s violence in the capital sparked new concerns in the United States with several leading names from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and others, including Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, expressing serious concerns.  Once again, the MEA spokesperson called these statements “irresponsible.” Raveesh Kumar, the MEA spokesperson went on to state that “Our law enforcement agencies are working on the ground to prevent violence and ensure restoration of confidence and normalcy. Senior representatives of the government have been involved in that process. Prime Minister has publicly appealed for peace and brotherhood.” A lot of India’s diplomatic bandwidth now has to be used for fighting these fires than for improving a vital relationship.

India can continue to dismiss these criticisms and concerns as unnecessary interference in its internal affairs, but it is unlikely this would help much. Even India’s well-wishers are beginning to worry. This will eventually be expensive if these problems are not resolved, especially because New Delhi will be wasting effort in explaining itself and creating unnecessary tensions and discomfort in critical relationships. Of course, the most important reason for resolving these problems is that India should be a society in which no section feels persecuted and differences are resolved peacefully, which it is difficult to say right now.

This commentary originally appeared in The Diplomat.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan (ORF)
13 March 2020

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